Reversing decline

Cities rise and fall and rarely stay on top for a very long time. Excepted, perhaps, are national capitals such as London, Paris or Madrid, as they tend to accrue political, economic and cultural power. But there are many counter-examples. Berlin lost its status and may catch up again. Kyoto lost out when Tokyo took over as capital. Rome had 1.5 million people in the first century AD; 300 years later, the population had fallen to 30,000, before resurging to 3 million in the 1970s. British cities like Liverpool, Sheffield and

Glasgow have seen their relative positions decline, not forgetting hundreds of smaller ones, from Burnley and Rochdale to Blackburn. Whole streets can still be bought in some northern English towns for under £100,000. If there were no subsidies for these places, there would be mayhem. Shored up by welfare payments, decline is managed. In parts, life is quite pleasant, but the young, gifted and talented are leaving. Side by side there are areas of affluence - some of them even the richest parishes in Britain - and poverty. A new class of quite well-paid urban therapists and regeneration experts keeps them afloat. Statistically there are more social workers, more housing experts and more economic development specialists than elsewhere. This welfare industry makes life bearable for those who find it difficult to succeed economically. They try to manage decline gracefully.

Consider, too, East Germany, where most big cities have shrunk, let alone the smaller ones. Or Detroit. Or production hubs in Russia like Ivanovo. Or the mining towns in Australia like Broken Hill or Whyalla. Cities rise up and achieve moments of glory and then fade into insignificance. Their resources run out - see Burra in South Australia; they are now in the wrong place - see Liverpool or Calcutta. For some, war contrives to make them lose power, as happened to Berlin and Vienna. Some miss strategic opportunities, some are badly managed and led. Some, such as Venice or Florence, manage to exploit the residues of their past glories by becoming tourist destinations, but their real dynamic has long gone. Decline mostly takes time and happens almost imperceptibly. Each small movement of decline in itself does not seem to matter, but collectively the movements constitute something dramatic.

Decline is often out of the control of cities but at times it is exacerbated by a tendency to operate within a comfort zone. This generates inertia, and then changing existing procedures and attitudes is like raising the Titanic. At times, the decline is not visible, and can be masked by comfortable lifestyles. Good weather, good food and wine can be blinding and the nostalgia of all good things past takes over.

The shrinking cities project has monitored such decline.52 Significantly, it is assessing the opportunities that decline may provide. Suddenly the growth paradigm is thrown out of the window. Decline may be bliss, with a premium on space, telecommuting a possibility, and far more room for experimentation and creating models for the future, such as eco-towns.

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